February 2023

The Nation Reviewed

Care and control in the Kimberley

By Jesse Noakes
Illustration of small figures on grey land below large night sky
Could on-Country communities help address soaring juvenile crime rates in remote Western Australia?

Floodlights at the basketball court in Kununurra, in Western Australia’s East Kimberley region, go off at 11pm. As the last couple of dozen kids lay each other up in the final moments before they’ll bundle into the white minibus that constitutes the town’s “night patrol”, an unmarked grey four-wheel drive cruises up and a couple of police get out. They are tactical response officers looking for “the twins”, two teenagers who have broken their curfew, and they chat with the two adults in the minibus. As the cops leave, the bus pulls out with its cargo of school-aged children, mostly 12 and younger, all Aboriginal. I sit in the back taking notes in the dark after the kids ask the driver, Gary, a Miriwoong police officer volunteering off-duty, to turn the lights off. “We’re not criminals, we’re not doing anything bad,” one explains.

The first house the minibus arrives at has a light on out the back. A boy and a girl get out and knock at the front door. After a couple of minutes waiting, they return to the bus, but as we are about to pull away the front door finally cracks open. The two children are home for the night. 

At the next stop, a young boy of about eight seems reluctant to leave the bus when an older woman walks out of the house with a cup in her hand. “She been drinking,” he says as the woman stumbles down the driveway while motioning for him to come. “He doesn’t want to stay at Nan Mary’s tonight,” says Tash from “54 Reasons”, the Save the Children initiative that coordinates the night patrol, and Gary steers the van away. Tash confers with the kid about an alternative place for him to spend the night.

The patrol will run until midnight, and Tash and Gary see about 70 kids a night out on the streets of Kununurra. Maybe a couple of dozen will accept a lift home. But one of the first kids we dropped off is back in town 10 minutes later, and we pass him half a dozen more times over the next couple of hours. 

“They don’t wanna go home, lots of them,” Gary says. “And once we finish is when the trouble starts – 2am, 3am, that’s when the stuff really happens.”

In East Kimberley, juvenile crime rates are rising. Stolen cars in Kununurra, ram raids in Halls Creek, a Toyota LandCruiser flipping on the road to Wyndham with its five child passengers then flown to hospital in Perth. While statistics released by WA Police show that the number of kids committing offences has stayed fairly stable for the past few years (more than 95 per cent of them Indigenous Australians), the number of offences committed has soared, especially property crimes. Burglaries were up 81 per cent in the second half of 2021 compared to the 12 months prior, and stolen vehicles up more than half. Some of that increase may be attributable to the waning of pandemic measures, but total property offences in 2022 were nearly 50 per cent higher than five years earlier across the Kimberley, where they are now around four times higher per capita than in the rest of WA.

At the Hidden Valley caravan park, tucked into a nub of the Mirima National Park with its sandstone turrets and rock art, the kids come through every second night. “Wallets, car keys, alcohol, smokes – that’s all they take,” says owner Mark. The cops have learnt to head straight to the Puma Roadhouse to get them on the CCTV. “The kids just want a feed.” 

Mark says they’re never violent, but they are brazen, taking four cars in the past few weeks. The last one, a LandCruiser worth $120,000, ended up in Halls Creek three hours away after the owner stepped out of his caravan to use the toilet during the night, having left the door ajar and the car keys on the table. Previously, kids have clambered over people sleeping beneath caravan windows, leaving no trace but a bent flyscreen.

“They’ve got no fear and no respect at all, even for the cops,” Mark says with a shrug. “Start locking the parents up – make them accountable.”

In early 2022, the WA government announced a police blitz called Operation Regional Shield, sending dozens of additional officers to the Kimberley from Perth. In the first few months, police reported they had identified about 600 “at-risk youth”. After some initial success, by the end of the year youth crime figures were getting worse again.

Those arrested frequently find themselves transported to Banksia Hill, WA’s only youth detention facility, located 3000 kilometres away in Perth. At times more than 90 per cent of the inmates from across the state detained at Banksia Hill are Aboriginal. With severe staff shortages leading to rolling lockdowns that leave children as young as 10 locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, the facility has been described as “illegal and inhumane” by the presiding judge of the Perth Children’s Court and the WA inspector of custodial services. On the last day of 2022, dozens of detained teenagers rioted, seizing weapons and setting fire to multiple buildings in response to their appalling living conditions.

A class action launched in the Federal Court in December by hundreds of former Banksia Hill detainees lists a litany of abuse suffered there. In response to the scandals, the WA government announced a $63 million package to upgrade the facility and improve the psychosocial supports for the children. It has also made announcements about developing an “on Country” rehabilitation centre near Derby in West Kimberley. That would still be a long way for a Miriwoong kid from Kununurra, or a Gija kid from Halls Creek, where break-ins are so rampant that the hotel has erected an electric fence and the town’s mayor has proposed to clear some bush just out of town for joy-riding kids to thrash their stolen cars away from the main street. The centre will also be closed for part of each year due to the wet season, which resulted in record floods across the Kimberley last month, severing the Great Northern Highway at several key points and likely further postponing the opening of the facility.

“It’s a political stunt,” says Neville D’Silva, chief executive of Wyndham Youth Aboriginal Corporation (WYAC), of the proposed Derby centre. “Stupid, these games. If you genuinely want these kids to change you actually have to treat them like normal people. They need to get jobs, they need to know that people do care, the children need to know that they are loved. Just throwing money is never going to work.”

D’Silva drives us to Wyndham, past Molly Springs, where snakes sometimes fall from the slippery cliffs into the pool below the waterfall, and The Grotto, where a large freshwater croc lives (but they’ll only tell you once you’ve spent an hour in the waterhole). The highway runs between stony, lightly treed hills, before descending into plains studded with boab trees where rangy herds of cattle wander freely across the road.

D’Silva has run WYAC for 18 months in a fibro building leased to him by the Department of Communities. Wyndham used to be the regional centre, but the old port town on the Cambridge Gulf is mostly uninhabited. The community now lives in a dusty grid of houses that stretches down the highway towards the salt flats and the only local bar, at a locked-up community centre, near an airstrip dominated by empty hangars and a derelict racetrack.

“Who’s going to give a shit about Wyndham?” D’Silva asks. “These kids are going out and the mums and dads are doing nothing. Banksia makes it worse because now they have a grudge against the white man.”

His organisation gets by on just under a million dollars a year. It runs a small youth club each afternoon, but it closes before 5pm on the day I’m there because it doesn’t have the staff. The WYAC’s night patrol won’t run that evening either. “Where has all the money gone?” D’Silva says over coffee. “We have to make the government sit up and notice us up here.”

Late last year, the WA government did finally make some concessions to the growing tide of pressure to address the issues underpinning the youth crime epidemic. It announced that a flagship early-intervention and prevention program, called “Target 120”, would be rolled out across the Kimberley, following some successes in Kununurra. A budget of $11.1 million will see the program introduced in Broome, Halls Creek, Fitzroy Crossing and Derby – but nothing yet for Wyndham.

There are also community-led solutions, driven by elders and families trying to keep young people connected to their culture, which receive scant attention from the government. Almost the last place in the Kimberley before you cross the Northern Territory border is Cockatoo Springs, where Ben Ward, a Miriwoong elder, has run things from his wheelchair for decades. Ward set up Cockatoo Springs in 1984 as part of the outstation movement that saw dozens of similar small communities emerge across the region. He has had hundreds of young people stay with him, getting them out of town and back on their Country.

“The freedom is out here,” he says. “I’d put all the blackfellas back on the stations, and I’d do a service from here.” He turns to Joe, a 16-year-old grandson who’s on a curfew with a few days remaining. “Hey, what do you mob reckon? You’d rather be back in town or out here fishing?”

Joe knows a lot of kids who’ve been taken down to Banksia Hill for spells. “In town, it’s just walking around all night and sleeping all day. It’s better out here – more stuff to do,” Joe says.

There’s hunting, bush tucker, and Ward would still like to get a workshop set up to repair cars. He says there’s been no offer of support from the government.

“When I’m out there in the bush, sit there with my wheelchair, I’m your welfare, policeman, judge, jury and executioner, and I do the whole thing for free. You got four gardiya [non-Aboriginal people] doing that for you – I don’t get paid for me.”

Joe rocks on a rodeo bull made out of steel frame and a leather hide with holes for the stirrup, as the dogs watch from under the table.

“I’d love to grab all them kids,” Ward says. “Really and truly. I’d love to grab all them kids and bring them out here.”

Jesse Noakes

Jesse Noakes is a writer from Western Australia. He has written for Guardian Australia, the ABC, The Saturday Paper, Vice and elsewhere.

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